These are the times that try baseball announcers' larynxes. And imaginations. And honesty. As September and football rolled around, the races in all four major league divisions had been yawners for weeks, even months. To be sure, after last week's sudden revival of the races in three of the divisions, it seemed possible that one or more of the front-runners might fold. But even if that happens, most of the 24 big-league teams will be merely playing out their schedules. In fact, some clubs have been doing just that for weeks. But they still have tickets and beer to sell, and their announcers must play their parts in fulfilling the $50.8 million worth of broadcasting contracts that help keep the game going.
Television contracts are written in rubber ink; stations typically have clauses that permit them to do a maximum number of games, but stipulate no minimum number. As a result, they often carry little baseball late in the season when the local team is treading water. This year 13 teams are playing less than .500 ball, and that is really treading water. But while the TV cameras pull back, the radio announcers must keep performing because the stations' contracts obligate them to do every game. Their task is not an easy one in a season such as this.
"When you are broadcasting a team that is leading its division," says Jack Buck, sports director of St. Louis' KMOX and for 20 years one of the main voices of the 100-station Cardinal network, "you go to the ball park every day with the enthusiasm of Pete Rose. But in a season like this one, you have to adjust. You really have to have a love for the game. In 1950 I broke in doing the Columbus team in the American Association that won the Junior World Series. It was a great experience. The next year we lost 101 games and finished last, 42½ games out. It was not a great experience."
One night recently on station WWWE in Cleveland, Joe Tait and Herb Score announced a game between the Indians, third in the American League East, and the Twins, who were 15 games back in the AL West. It went on for 17 innings—and four hours and 55 minutes. In the 12th, they told their listeners that Twin Catcher Glenn Borgmann had entered the game hitting .324 and that his average was now .282. During the 13th Tait said, "This is the kind of a night when you just sit here and the names of players like Gordon Wind-horn pop into your mind." Another thing the broadcasters do is discuss prospects down on the farm. "It's another bad night in Wichita, folks," said Tait. "Oscar Zamora takes a loss in relief."
Lindsey Nelson has been announcing Met games since the team was formed in 1962. "We lost 120 games that year, including the first nine in a row," he says. "We were out of the pennant race right then. And we knew it. The thing that kept us going was Casey Stengel. He put up marvelous smoke screens. We told stories about him and repeated stories he told. If Gene Mauch or Alvin Dark or someone like that had been managing, we all would have gone crazy.
"But even after my experience in 1962, I've still found the 1976 season to be very odd. Every day we sit down and figure out what else is going on in baseball so that we can tell our listeners. We rode the devil out of Randy Jones going for 30 wins, but then he started to lose. We tell the listeners how many people are at the ball park when Mark Fidrych of the Tigers pitches. You get the feeling you are broadcasting a preliminary fight with no championship bout to follow. You have to do each game as a separate event."
One of the finest announcers is Al Michaels of KSFO in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the team he covers is the Giants, and they are definitely not one of the finest. "We started this season not knowing if we would be playing in San Francisco or Toronto," Michaels says. "When it was decided that the team would stay in San Francisco, there was a tremendous amount of excitement. Still, this has turned out to be my toughest season as an announcer. The team hasn't played well, and this could be the worst year the Giants have had since 1946. How often do you think you can say that if we go on a winning streak we can catch Atlanta for fifth place? How often can you talk about the club getting help for next year from the free-agent draft?"
No team's season has been more disappointing than the Red Sox'. All along, Boston Announcers Ned Martin and Jim Woods have discussed the Sox' problems openly. "You can't fool anybody," says Martin. "The same players who won last year are losing this year. But the fellow who shines through is Carl Yastrzemski, and we keep saying that he has a chance to win the RBI title. You stress individual performances when you can, but there haven't been that many this year. When you can, you try to lighten things up."
The season has been anything but light for Martin. His back has been aching through most of it as a result of years of leaning over a desk to do play-by-play. He had to announce a recent 11-game road trip standing up. Two weeks ago Martin and Woods did a game between Boston and Kansas City in which the Sox led 12-0 by the second inning. There was also a 51-minute rain delay. As the afternoon wore on, Martin and Woods struggled with considerable success to make their broadcast interesting, and at one point they told a lot about themselves—and this season.
Woods: Ned, you have to love this game.
Martin: I do. I really do.
Woods: When we finish up this home stand, we go to Cleveland for a twi-night doubleheader on Saturday.
Martin: I can't wait to get there.
Woods: Will you ever quit?
Martin: They'll have to tear the uniform off my back.